I’ll admit it: Ponoko excites me. In the virtual world of of web startups, it’s unusual to see one that not only sells, but produces real-world items. Prior to today, Ponoko was only accessible to people with at least some familiarity with computer aided design (CAD) software, but it has just released a tool, Photomake, to let anyone design small items.
Ponoko, in case you haven’t heard of it, makes small items from a variety of materials, based on user designs (see right for some examples of finished products). The company uses computer-guided laser cutters, which work without human direction, simply following the instructions provided to them by CAD files. CAD expertise, unfortunately, is generally restricted to professions like architects, designers and engineers.
Now you can create your own design by simply drawing it on a blank piece of paper, taking a picture, and uploading the picture to Ponoko. From there, it’s converted to a simple CAD format, from which the cutters can follow their directions.
The trade-off of the tool’s simplicity is just that. CAD allows for some pretty complex designs. With this tool, you’ll only get to work in two dimensions, unless you’re clever enough to make something that can be bent, folded or slotted together into a three-dimensional object. Also, the margin for error is appreciably larger when scribbling by hand, rather than precisely measuring out a software design.
And it also requires at least a little understanding of how the machines work. Below, I tried to make things difficult for Photomake by drawing a lumpily-outlined elephant with freckles on its behind (I’m distantly related to Van Gogh). The design didn’t fully make it through, although the software tried valiantly to follow the outlines. Note that the elephant would come out as a solid piece, and the freckles and eye would pop out to leave holes.
But mostly, you can see how your design will turn out before you order it, and you can choose from 19 plastics and 11 woods of varying thickness if you choose to order it. The tool is fun to play with, any really, when was the last chance you really had to make something, if you’re not a crafty person with tools and know-how?
Ponoko is still in an early stage, so it remains to be seen how well they’ll pull of their ideas. But with 3d printers and rapid manufacturing tools becoming cheaper and more accessible every year, it’s only a matter of time — and my feeling is, not much time — until someone strikes it big in this category, much as happened with Threadless in custom t-shirts (although that site was smart enough to run design contests).
For now, Ponoko is one of the only games in town, and it seems to be growing pretty well — chief strategy officer Derek Elly tells me sales are up 111 percent in the last month. It also released another tool earlier this month, which allows people to commission designs. For another idea with a somewhat more limited scope, check out Fabjectory and FigurePrints, which print out 3D versions of avatars from Second Life, World of Warcraft and other games. Shapeways also prints 3-D versions of artistic designs. (We wrote about Shapeways here).